Senate Democrats are angling to end the military's decades-old ban on allowing abortions in overseas military hospitals, thus thrusting the culture wars back onto the front burner after months of being drowned out by the nation's economic woes.
Sen. Roland W. Burris, Illinois Democrat, ushered the proposal through the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, tacking it onto the Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate is slated to consider Tuesday.
Mr. Burris' plan would require women to pay for abortions upfront and without government funds, but would allow doctors at military hospitals to perform the procedures if those conditions are met. It would overturn a policy established by congressional Republicans in the mid-1990s that restricted abortions at military hospitals only to cases of rape, incest or when the woman's life is in danger.
"I feel it is critical that we ensure our men and women in uniform have access to the highest quality of health care while they are serving overseas," Mr. Burris said. "This legislation simply removes a decades-old ban, allowing doctors to offer services and freeing American servicewomen to receive the medical attention they require, all without spending a single federal dollar."
The proposal angered social and religious conservatives, including many of the 2,000 or so who converged on Washington this weekend for the Values Voter Summit. Speaking at the event, Sen. James M. Inhofe said the plan would still go to fund doctors and surgical equipment used for abortions in military hospitals, and that it should not be slipped into the defense authorization bill.
The Oklahoma Republican also warned that "they are going to turn our military hospitals into abortion clinics" and called on the crowd to rally against lawmakers interested in moving the proposal forward.
"Make sure they understand that you are watching. Because if they don't think you're watching, it's going to sail through," Mr. Inhofe said, alluding to Tuesday's scheduled vote. "You can stop it ... . If you do this, you will be doing the Lord's work, and he will richly bless you for it," he said on Friday.
It's unknown whether Democrats will have the 60 votes needed to break a GOP-led filibuster. Moderate Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, have yet to indicate whether they will oppose the push.
"Sen. Collins would like the Senate to proceed to a full and open debate on the defense authorization bill, with members able to offer amendments on all relevant issues," said Collins' spokesman, Kevin Kelley. "She has encouraged [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid to work with Republican leaders to negotiate such an agreement so that the bill could be brought to the floor."
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson, said that the Nebraska Democrat opposes "elective abortions on publicly funded facilities."
The battle comes months after a fight over taxpayer funding of abortion almost sank the Democrats' health care bill. Pro-life activists argued that the bill expanded government-funded coverage of abortions, and nearly rallied enough votes to defeat the entire measure. Mr. Obama eventually intervened and asked Democrats not to use health care to alter abortion policy.
It also comes after Republicans raised questions regarding Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's approach toward abortion during her confirmation hearing.
With polls and political pundits suggesting the GOP is poised to wrest control of the House and perhaps the Senate in the November elections, the bill and the related amendments could mark Democrats' last best chance to woo voters, to score some historic victories in the culture wars and to see some of their long-standing promises come to fruition.
Democrats also are pushing defense authorization bill amendments that would end the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' law, which bars openly gay men and women from serving in the military, and that would put hundreds of thousands of children of illegal immigrants on the path toward citizenship.
Republicans have a lot riding on Tuesday, said Charles Colson, a longtime evangelical activist.
"The Republican leadership would be pretty stupid if they didn't fight this issue," Mr. Colson said. Should the GOP fail to filibuster the plan, he said, "I think it would turn [social and religious conservatives] off from the Republican Party."
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